Book Review -
Anasazi America: Seventeen Centuries on the Road from Center Place (2nd Edition)
by David E. Stuart
Published 2014, University of New Mexico Press
Something I've learned about reading ancient history is that modern people are only interested in ancient peoples to the extent that scholars can make the case that the ancient people have some relevance to modern life. Thus, the West has long been interested in ancient Rome and Greece as inspiring our own cultures, and as you spread out there the interest generally tracks the "discovery" of ruins by Western scholars or the need for practical knowledge in the course of some specific colonial enterprise. Both of those traditional justifications for modern people being interested in ancient history are somewhat passe and they've been replaced by the idea that we can learn lessons from disparate cultures and apply to our own experience.
|This is an example of Anasazi pit house, the kind of dwelling used outside of the major complexes of the Anasazi and successor civilization.|
These two projects are not diametrically opposed, but the former approach emphasizes the superiority of our Modern culture to the ancient ones, whereas the later, and more modern approach, tends to downplay the superiority of one people to another. Native Americans, huge losers under the first approach, may be winners in the more modern approach, specifically as we grapple with the impact of climate change, the experience of the Native American civilizations of the desert Southwest is of increasing relevance to our everyday existence.
Stuart blends his state of the art knowledge about discoveries in this field with a polemic that resembles the editorial page of a left leaning daily newspaper. He is obviously a critic of income inequality and has concerns about many social and environmental issues. Stuart is also not afraid to engage in the kind of large-scale theorizing/creation of narrative that has fallen out of favor in academic history for the last half century.
Stuart makes the case that the rise of the great Anazasi great houses of the high period- roughly 900 to 1100 A.D. was very much tied to a historically wet period of southwestern history, particularly a period when rain in the summer was very constant. This allowed for a dramatic temporary expansion in population and spurred the building of many late period houses immediately prior to the collapse of said civilization in the late 12th century- 1170-1180 AD.
|The great houses of the height of the Anasazi culture were out in the open|
After the collapse there was a split between elites who either tried to hold on in the great houses or moved north and east and common farmers who moved east and engaged in mortal combat with indigenous peoples who occupied that territory. After the collapse of the great houses of Chaco Canyons and environs the bigger structures were the "cliff houses"- built for a less expansive and less secure time and place.
Stuart makes the case that one consequence of the collapse of the great Anasazi of the 900-1200 AD era was the deliberate rejection of the elite culture of those people. Successor cultures showed less stratification between elites and every day citizens. He makes the case that the modern day Pueblo and their very egalitarian approach to existence is a kind of less learned from the collapse of the Anasazi.
Stuart makes a passionate, and I would say strong, case that there is no reason to suppose that the Anasazi "disappeared." The name itself is Navajo and means "the enemies of our ancestors" and Stuart actually cites Navajo folk tales that involve Navajo people travelling to the Chaco Canyon great Anasazi houses.
|This the Taos Pueblo, present day.|
Of course, the Pueblo are very much a people of history, with documentation from the 16th century onward. They also showed an ability to adapt and react to colonization and indeed, endure in their ancestral lands that is almost unmatched. Nowhere else do you have Native peoples who continue to occupy their pre-contact territory.
Stuart argues that succesor civilizations learned from the Anasazi that they needed to diversify their sources of nutrition by spreading out through different environments and placing their dwellings on "ecotones" places where two eco systems intersect. In his telling the Anazasi were done in by putting all their eggs in the basket of dry land farming of corn, beans and squash supported by regular summer rains, and when those rains disappeared, the Anasazi were toast. In comparison, the cliff dwellers and modern day Pueblo draw from nearly a dozen different environments.
Although the politics may make even the sympathetic wince, this is an area of world history in great need of the kind of narrative that Stuart willingly provides, and hopefully this work will be a foundation of new generation of narrative history in the desert southwest.